You have mastered the art of first impressions. It’s easy to reel them in and land the date. As long as what’s underneath doesn’t creep it’s way to the surface, that is. How does a person with bipolar disorder survive the dating world? My answer: mindfully.
In lieu of Valentine’s Day, I’ve pieced together a three-part series on various aspects of bipolar disorder and love. This is meant to be informational with a shot of perspective, and a smooth aftertaste of personal connection. Please feel free to leave feedback or share your own experiences.
The noise in your head is louder than the conversation between you and your date, but you somehow manage to keep your composure. Your date is beyond attractive. You still cannot believe you are here. Your head is getting louder and you can’t feel your tongue. Now this could sound like any first date jitters, but the difference between jitters and what you are experiencing is the fact that any chance of a future with you and this person, in reality, includes you, this attractive person, and your bipolar. The three of you. Admittedly, knowing this can be discouraging.
Dating in itself is hard. It is full of anxiety and expectations. Dating when you have a mental disorder creates it’s own set of difficulties because the disorder isn’t typically visible to the naked eye. Mood disorders such as bipolar disorder or depression, or even anxiety disorders don’t necessarily have symptoms all the time. Mood swings and triggers induce symptoms that result in behavioral changes. Understandably, this can be a huge pain in the ass when in the market for a mate.
So, what makes for smooth dating?
First and foremost, make sure you are ready to date. I’m not saying all of your ducks need to be in a row. (I mean really, who’s are?) I’m referring to having your mental health in check. Are you stable? Have you been consistent with your medication? Are you depressed? Manic? Having thoughts of harming yourself? You know the rest. It is so very important to be in a healthy place before bringing someone new into your life. If you are not really ready, then it’s not only unfair to that person, but it’s unfair to yourself. Besides, dating is fun and the point is to enjoy one another. You can’t do that if you are sick.
Another key to dating is to know yourself. Know where you stand on issues such as marriage and children. Odds are they will come up at some point and it’s no secret that bipolar disorder can complicate these things. But please know bipolar is not poison to domesticity! (I can tell you first-hand.)
When do you spill the beans?
No doubt this is the scariest part. The part of dating when you have to tell your partner about the thing that you try to not let define you. The thing that can turn you from Dr. Jekyll to Mr. Hyde in a matter of minutes. The thing that allows you to hear colors and taste sounds. The thing called bipolar disorder.
It’s tricky because it is possible to reveal your bipolarity too soon, and it is also possible to reveal it too late. The best time to bring it up is as the relationship has reached a level of intimacy where you are ready to be exclusive and make a commitment to one another. When you are entering a deeper trust mode.
When talking about bipolar, be mindful that the person you are talking to may not have had previous experience with it, at the same time they may have had a bad experience with it in the past. This is also a highly stigmatized disorder. Be delicate, but make it clear that what you are about to talk about is important and personal. Gauge the conversation as you go, and try not to react to their reaction if it is not what you expected. Go ahead and tell them about your treatment regime and your feelings with having the diagnosis. Try not to use a ton of technical medical terms so it’s a little less intimidating, and easily comprehensible.
Back in 2006, when my wife and I were just dating, I remember being pretty nervous about telling her my diagnosis of bipolar type 1. I really liked that girl a lot and was so scared she would think I was defective or crazy or something. I waited until we had been dating about a month. At this point we had grown exceptionally close and developed intimacy. We went on a camping trip and I basically blurted it out at the campfire. She didn’t freak out or judge me. I learned that she had previous experience with her mother being bipolar. Her life growing up with an untreated bipolar mother was mostly dysfunctional, so she has seen the ugly side of the disorder. Of course because of this I thought she would run, but instead she was very knowledgeable and chose to give me a shot. It’s about learning to trust one another and take chances.
What about the dreaded psych hospital?
So you and your new mate have been dating for a handful of months and all is peachy. And then it happens. The dreaded episode. It could be depression or mania- doesn’t matter, either is shattering. And you find yourself in a psychiatric hospital. Perhaps you’ve been there before or maybe it’s your first time. Either way, on top of regaining stability and utilizing treatment, you are going mad over the fact that you have to tell the new girl/boyfriend that their partner is in the looney bin. What is the best way to handle this situation?
Well, for starters, make sure you keep your partner in the loop prior to any hospitalizations. Granted, that may be awkward since it’s still in the beginning stages, but it may help to bring up treatment options and discuss the possibility of being admitted into the hospital for a medication adjustment.
I was first hospitalized when I was 18. At that time I was dating a wonderful girl who treated me well. While we weren’t that serious yet, after a couple of months I could see it going somewhere. Maybe it’s because I was young, or because I was freshly diagnosed, I never told her about my bipolar disorder. I think she got used to my moodiness so when I didn’t call her for a few days, she wasn’t concerned. I didn’t tell her I was in the hospital. I was too ashamed and didn’t want her to see me like that. When I didn’t call her for even longer, she figured that I just didn’t want to see her anymore. When I was finally discharged, I assumed she didn’t want to see me so I didn’t call her. For years I regretted not contacting her and I wondered what could have been. (Side note: We did reacquaint years later and she wished I’d have talked to her about what was going on with me. We have since drifted, but I was able to gain closure. And I have since been happily married to my wife.)
Try these suggestions for dating done right:
If you see things going in the positive direction with your new partner, encourage them to educate themselves a little bit on bipolar disorder. There are a lot of good books and websites available. This could make it a little less overwhelming for them and establish a connection between the two of you. It also makes it easier when you do open up about what you are experiencing.
Be honest about what you need. For instance if you are feeling depressed, maybe you don’t need someone to try to cheer you up. Maybe quiet meditation serves a better function. Make it clear what is helpful and what isn’t.
Share your positive qualities. We all know having bipolar also comes with some intriguing qualities as well. We’re vibrant, creative, passionate, and unique!
Can it become more?
So you really dig this person with whom you’ve been canoodling and you’re starting to feel the urge to utter the little ‘ol “L” word. Good for you! Of course there is so much running through your head. It’s no secret that relationships with a bipolar partner tend to not fare well. Statically 90% of bipolar marriages end in divorce. That’s depressing in itself. Don’t let the statistics scare you. It is possible to take it to the next level. Just check in with yourself often and put forth the effort to maintain stability.
I will be focusing on marriage and long-term relationships in the third and final segment, Bipolar Valentine Part 3: In Sickness and Health, Mania and Depression. And if you haven’t already, check out my previous segment Bipolar Valentine Part 1: Is It Love or Just Bipolar?